A critique of the egalitarian ideal
Murray Rothbard writes:
should equality be granted its current status as an unquestioned ethical ideal? In the first place, we must challenge the very idea of a radical separation between something that is "true in theory" but "not valid in practice." If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory. The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one. But this is true in ethics as well as anything else. If an ethical ideal is inherently "impractical," that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith. To put it more precisely, if an ethical goal violates the nature of man and/or the universe and, therefore, cannot work in practice, then it is a bad ideal and should be dismissed as a goal. If the goal itself violates the nature of man, then it is also a poor idea to work in the direction of that goal.
Suppose, for example, that it has come to be adopted as a universal ethical goal that all men be able to fly by flapping their arms. Let us assume that "pro-flappers" have been generally conceded the beauty and goodness of their goal, but have been criticized as "impractical." But the result is unending social misery as society tries continually to move in the direction of arm-flying, and the preachers of arm-flapping make everyone's lives miserable for being either lax or sinful enough not to live up to the common ideal. The proper critique here is to challenge the "ideal" goal itself; to point out that the goal itself is impossible in view of the physical nature of man and the universe; and, therefore, to free mankind from its enslavement to an inherently impossible and, hence, evil goal. But this liberation could never occur so long as the anti-armfliers continued to be solely in the realm of the "practical" and to concede ethics and "idealism" to the high priests of arm-flying. The challenge must take place at the core at the presumed ethical superiority of a nonsensical goal. The same, I hold, is true of the egalitarian ideal, except that its social consequences are far more pernicious than an endless quest for man's flying unaided. For the condition of equality would wreak far more damage upon mankind.
What, in fact, is "equality"? The term has been much invoked but little analyzed. A and B are "equal" if they are identical to each other with respect to a given attribute. Thus, if Smith and Jones are both exactly six feet in height, then they may be said to be "equal" in height. If two sticks are identical in length, then their lengths are "equal," etc. There is one and only one way, then, in which any two people can really be "equal" in the fullest sense: they must be identical in all of their attributes. This means, of course, that equality of all men the egalitarian ideal can only be achieved if all men are precisely uniform, precisely identical with respect to all of their attributes. The egalitarian world would necessarily be a world of horror fiction a world of faceless and identical creatures, devoid of all individuality, variety, or special creativity.
...the intuitive recognition that men are not uniform, that the species, mankind, is uniquely characterized by a high degree of variety, diversity, differentiation; in short, inequality. An egalitarian society can only hope to achieve its goals by totalitarian methods of coercion; and, even here, we all believe and hope the human spirit of individual man will rise up and thwart any such attempts to achieve an ant-heap world. In short, the portrayal of an egalitarian society is horror fiction because, when the implications of such a world are fully spelled out, we recognize that such a world and such attempts are profoundly antihuman; being antihuman in the deepest sense, the egalitarian goal is, therefore, evil and any attempts in the direction of such a goal must be considered evil as well.
The great fact of individual difference and variability (that is, inequality) is evident from the long record of human experience; hence, the general recognition of the antihuman nature of a world of coerced uniformity. Socially and economically, this variability manifests itself in the universal division of labor, and in the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" the insight that, in every organization or activity, a few (generally the most able and/or the most interested) will end up as leaders, with the mass of the membership filling the ranks of the followers. In both cases, the same phenomenon is at work outstanding success or leadership in any given activity is attained by what Jefferson called a "natural aristocracy" those who are best attuned to that activity.
The age-old record of inequality seems to indicate that this variability and diversity is rooted in the biological nature of man. But it is precisely such a conclusion about biology and human nature that is the most galling of all possible irritants to our egalitarians. Even egalitarians would be hard put to deny the historical record, but their answer is that "culture" has been to blame; and since they obviously hold that culture is a pure act of the will, then the goal of changing the culture and inculcating society with equality seems to be attainable. In this area, the egalitarians slough off any pretense to scientific caution; they are scarcely content with acknowledging biology and culture as mutually interacting influences. Biology must be read out of court quickly and totally.
Let us ponder an example that is deliberately semi-frivolous. Suppose that we observe our culture and find a common dictum to be: "Redheads are excitable." Here is a judgment of inequality, a conclusion that redheads as a group tend to differ from the nonredhead population. Suppose, then, that egalitarian sociologists investigate the problem, and they find that redheads do, indeed, tend to be more excitable than nonredheads by a statistically significant amount. Instead of admitting the possibility of some sort of biological difference, the egalitarian will quickly add that the "culture" is responsible for the phenomenon: the generally accepted "stereotype" that redheads are excitable had been instilled into every redheaded child from an early age, and he or she has simply been internalizing these judgments and acting in the way society was expecting him to act. Redheads, in brief, had been "brainwashed" by the predominant nonredhead culture.
While not denying the possibility of such a process occurring, this common complaint seems decidedly unlikely on rational analysis. For the egalitarian culture-bugaboo implicitly assumes that the "culture" arrives and accumulates haphazardly, with no reference to social facts. The idea that "redheads are excitable" did not originate out of the thin air or as a divine commandment; how, then, did the idea come into being and gain general currency? One favorite egalitarian device is to attribute all such group-identifying statements to obscure psychological drives. The public had a psychological need to accuse some social group of excitability, and redheads were fastened on as scapegoats. But why were redheads singled out? Why not blondes or brunettes? The horrible suspicion begins to loom that perhaps redheads were singled out because they were and are indeed more excitable and that, therefore, society's "stereotype" is simply a general insight into the facts of reality. Certainly this explanation accounts for more of the data and the processes at work and is a much simpler explanation besides. Regarded objectively, it seems to be a far more sensible explanation than the idea of the culture as an arbitrary and ad hoc bogeyman. If so, then we might conclude that redheads are biologically more excitable and that propaganda beamed at redheads by egalitarians urging them to be less excitable is an attempt to induce redheads to violate their nature; therefore, it is this latter propaganda that may more accurately be called "brainwashing."
This is not to say, of course, that society can never make a mistake and that its judgments of group-identity are always rooted in fact. But it seems to me that the burden of proof is far more on the egalitarians than on their supposedly "unenlightened" opponents.
Since egalitarians begin with the a priori axiom that all people, and hence all groups of peoples, are uniform and equal, it then follows for them that any and all group differences in status, prestige, or authority in society must be the result of unjust "oppression" and irrational "discrimination." Statistical proof of the "oppression" of redheads would proceed in a manner all too familiar in American political life; it might be shown, for example, that the median redhead income is lower than nonredheaded income, and further that the proportion of redheaded business executives, university professors, or congressmen is below their quotal representation in the population. The most recent and conspicuous manifestation of this sort of quotal thinking was in the McGovern movement at the 1972 Democratic Convention. A few groups are singled out as having been "oppressed" by virtue of delegates to previous conventions falling below their quotal proportion of the population as a whole. In particular, women, youth, blacks, Chicanos (or the so-called Third World) were designated as having been oppressed; as a result, the Democratic Party, under the guidance of egalitarian-quota thinking, overrode the choices of the voters in order to compel their due quotal representation of these particular groups.
In some cases, the badge of "oppression" was an almost ludicrous construction. That youths of 18 to 25 years of age had been "underrepresented" could easily have been placed in proper perspective by a reductio ad absurdum, surely some impassioned McGovernite reformer could have risen to point out the grievous "underrepresentation" of five-year olds at the convention and to urge that the five-year-old bloc receive its immediate due. It is only commonsense biological and social insight to realize that youths win their way into society through a process of apprenticeship; youths know less and have less experience than mature adults, and so it should be clear why they tend to have less status and authority than their elders. But to accept this would be to cast the egalitarian creed into some substantial doubt; further, it would fly into the face of the youth-worship that has long been a grave problem of American culture. And so young people have been duly designated as an "oppressed class," and the coercing of their population quota is conceived as only just reparation for their previously exploited condition.